• Published 4th Jan 2012
  • 25,709 Views, 1,518 Comments

The Flight of the Alicorn - Ponydora Prancypants

Rarity finds herself forced into an unlikely alliance when her airship crashes far from home.

  • ...

XVII. Promising

XVII. Promising

The liberated barge floated downstream, its speed and course solely dictated by the river’s prevailing current. Hiding on board, under a blue canvas tarp and amidst unmarked wooden crates and pallets of tinned fish, Rarity felt equally at the mercy of outside forces. If the griffons found her here, there was nowhere to flee and no magic spell that would save her. If the escape plan worked, and the explosion and fire at the base proved a sufficient distraction, she would reach freedom, however temporary it might prove to be.

She was still mystified as to how she found herself in this current predicament. Thanks to Khufu’s deception, her simple plan to obtain the Badge of Courage orchid had been transformed into a convoluted rescue mission into the heart of Karroc’s base. At least this most recent misadventure had not been completely fruitless; not only had she learned valuable information about the conspiracy and gained new traveling companions, albeit of dubious repute, but she had also finally obtained the object of her quest.

In the dim light that sneaked under the edges of the tarp, she stared down at the blood-red bloom lying limply on the deck in front of her. She had risked all of their lives to get it, poking her head out from under the tarp in plain view of any onlooker so that she could use her magic to snatch it from the riverbank as they drifted past. Zinzi had tried to pull her back under, but she had forcefully pushed the zebra away. After everything she had been through, she was not going to return without that flower, even if she doomed them all in the process.

It had been a selfish act, she knew, and not at all appropriate for the mare who purportedly represented the living spirit of the Element of Generosity. Rarity, however, was growing weary of giving, and trusting, and each time being deceieved and exploited. Much to her continuing disbelief, the only pony she had encountered since leaving home who had actually proved faithful and true was Blueblood. Even Fancypants, her friend, had secured her participation in the race with an ulterior and highly self-interested motive.

Despite the fact that Blueblood was still needy, whiny, and mostly unlikable, he had risked his life to save her on at least two occasions, and she simply refused to fail him now. She also refused to apologize for the risk she had undertaken in snatching the orchid. Finally, she stubbornly refused to consider acknowledging the possibility that Blueblood’s injuries and infection had caught up to him while she was away. He was waiting for her, and she was keenly aware of her promise to return by nightfall. Already the sun was sinking into the forest.

“It has been long enough. Surely we must be safe, ” Rarity ventured to nopony in particular. She could not see well in the darkness, but she knew that Zinzi, Zips, and Buckaroo were there amongst the cargo. “We are clear of the griffons’ base, and we must get to shore before it becomes too dark to do so.”

“How do you intend we get to shore without a rudder or an oar?” Zinzi asked from somewhere close behind Rarity.

“That is no problem at all,” she replied. “I can make oars. Mr. Buckaroo, where are you?”

“I’m here, I’m here.” The stallion sounded groggy, as if he had just awoken from a nap. It took a certain kind of pony to nap in the face of mortal danger, Rarity thought.

“Fabulous, now that you’ve had your beauty rest I need you to break one of these crates apart into its individual boards for me.”

“I can’t even see in here, so how'm I gonna do that?” the stallion protested.m

“Oh, fine.” Rarity’s horn glowed with bright blue light as she began to peel back the canvas tarp from bow to stern.

“Wait!” Zinzi cried. “That is our only protection! Are you trying to aid the griffons in our detection?”

Rarity ignored the zebra’s protests, and continued to magically haul back the canvas until the barge’s deck was open to the warm air and setting sun. She was, of course, very much aware that there could be unfriendly watchers above, but they could not simply float on forever. She had a promise to keep, and she would have have no reference points to find her way back to Blueblood’s resting spot if they went much further. Fortunately, all she could see above the river was a cloudless sunset sky of red, orange, and gold. Either the griffons had given up on the flotilla of loosed barges, or they had never followed.

“There. Now if you would be so kind as to break down one of the large wooden crates.” Packed in along with what had to be thousands of tins of dead fish, the very thought of which turned Rarity’s stomach, were numerous crates. Some were quite small, whereas others were large enough to contain a full-grown stallion. The crates were unmarked, but she did not care what their contents might be. It was the wood comprising them that interested her.

“I’d be a happy pony if you just called me Buck,” the big umber stallion drawled, rising to his hooves on the deck. “Seeing as we’re all friends now.” He flashed a winning smile at Rarity, accompanied by a wink.

Unconsciously, Rarity found herself mirroring the stallion’s smile before she thought better of it. “The crate, Mr. Buckaroo,” she said with urgency, shaking her head to clear it.

“Alright, alright. Everypony stand back.”

Zinzi and Zips hastened to stand next to Rarity, a safe distance away, as Buckaroo chose one of the largest crates, leaned forward to put his weight on his front hooves, and then gave a mighty kick with both back legs. The impact shivered the top half of the crate, smashing one side into fragments, collapsing the top, and causing the other sides to fall away. The crate had been filled with straw as a packing material, and it spilled out over the deck in every direction, exposing some long metal tubes and other mechanical parts that Rarity did not recognize. More importantly, she now had necessary broken boards with which to work.

“Sweet spirits, is that what I think it is?” Buckaroo asked upon turning to see the exposed contents of the crate.

“Yeah, looks like it,” Zips affirmed, walking across the deck to peer at the exposed parts. “The rest of it is probably in the other crates.”

“Looks like what?” Rarity asked. “What is it?”

“I think we just absconded with our former buddy Zolo’s prototype,” Buckaroo replied. “Hehe, this thing has been his life’s work ever since he joined up with Khufu way back when.”

“He called it an Automatic Reloading Cannon. ARC, for short,” said Zips. "No one has seen it actually work yet."

“It is weapon of war most abhorrent, that fires not one bullet at a time, but instead a torrent,” Zinzi explained further.

“I thought it was still just experimental, but they must have been about to cart it up to install it on the Big Girl. Good thing we got it first, because that ship sure as hay don’t need anything else in the way of firepower,” said Buckaroo.

“It isn’t much good to us, though,” Zips noted. “It’s all in pieces, and it’s too heavy to take along.”

“Then we should push it overboard, into the river,” Rarity declared. “I’ve had enough of cannons and firesticks for a lifetime.”

“Whoa, hey now, not so fast!” Buckaroo stepped between Rarity and the cargo even as her horn began to glow. “Look, I think we’ve all figured out by now that this ‘friend’ of yours is none other than that Canterlot duke Karroc tried to off. Now, I may not be a fan of no entitled noble-types, but I’ve heard that fellow knows his way around a toolbox. If we need to set up camp for a little bit while we decide where to go next, and iffin he can get this thing put together, then it might be just what we need to keep the griffons off our backs. Plus, if that fellow’s really hurt bad, then he might need some time to recover, even with that there flower.”

Rarity was a bit taken aback at the revelation that Buckaroo and others had deduced that her injured companion was Blueblood, but in retrospect she supposed it was the logical inference. She considered Buckaroo’s suggestion. It was probably true that Blueblood could figure out how to assemble whatever ugly war machine was packed up in these crates, but she had no interest in abetting the use of such a device, even against Karroc’s griffons. There was a good reason she had wrecked the captives’ firesticks the day prior, after all. These hateful devices had no value beyond causing harm, and unlike Blueblood she did not find them the slightest bit interesting or beautiful. She was about to demand that Buckaroo step aside so she could shove the thing into the river, when Zinzi spoke up.

“Look there at the river’s edge! There is somepony standing amongst the sedge!” Rarity whirled around to look, all thoughts of the weapon pushed to the back of her mind.

“Hello, my friends!” Rarity recognized Khufu’s voice, and sure enough, the camel’s long scarf-covered neck protruded from the tall reedy plants and tufts of marsh grass on the river’s edge not more than fifty lengths downstream. What was he doing here? Her heart pounded as she considered the possibilities. She had sent him to care for Blueblood! What did this mean?

“Khufu! It is truly you!” Zinzi exclaimed, looking delighted at the sight of the camel. Her son and Buckaroo appeared equally thrilled to see their employer. Probably, Rarity though, because he knew where their money was buried.

At that moment, a pony appeared next to Khufu, and Rarity felt faint. He was unmistakable, and the mere sight of him filled her with a tingling sensation of delight that she was completely unable to suppress, despite her best efforts. The feeling, she reminded herself, was not due to the identity of the stallion in question, but due to the satisfaction of completing her quest.

“You’re alive!” Rarity exclaimed, punctuating the pronouncement an embarrassingly girlish squeal.

In fact, Blueblood appeared more than merely alive; he looked the very picture of health, which left her to wonder at the mechanism for his abrupt recovery. Khufu’s presence suggested that he had not only gone to Blueblood as she had asked of him, but had also given him the healing flower, which, as it so happened, would have required no special knowledge or preparation on his part. The realization that he had healed Blueblood in no way absolved Khufu for his misrepresentation; he had sent Rarity on the deadly rescue mission and taken the surefire easy one for himself.

“Stay there. We are on our way!” she shouted.

Rarity quickly turned and levitated a few of the larger, more intact pieces of wood that had until recently constituted the side of the crate that Buckaroo had smashed. She merely had to perform a simple modification spell. Changing components into beautiful finished products was, magically speaking, her bread and butter. With a flash and a pop, the broken boards were remade into four elegant wooden oars, complete with round hoof-holds for non-unicorns. She let three of the oars clatter to the uneven deck, and kept the last for herself.

“Come on. Help me paddle over to the river bank!” Rarity prompted, and the others swiftly moved to comply. She pulled her oar through the water with magic while the others used the round openings she had crafted for their hooves, and together they began to alter the barge’s course. It was not easy, given the strength of the river’s flow and the squared-off, unhydrodynamic nature of the watercraft, but they finally ran aground and lurched to a stop not far from where Blueblood and Khufu stood watching. While Buckaroo repurposed the cords that had held down the canvas tarp to secure the barge to a thick tree growing near the water’s edge, Rarity wasted no time in bounding off the deck and onto dry land.

“Never in my wildest flights of fancy did I ever think I would be glad to see you,” she said to Blueblood as she trotted over to him. “But I am.” She had to rein in a giddy impulse to hug, reminding herself with whom she was dealing here. Still, she could barely believe that he was standing in front of her looking as hale as any pony lost in a jungle could be.

“Not exactly a ringing endorsement, but I’ll take it. It is good to see you too,” Blueblood replied.

“You look well,” Rarity continued. “Very well.” Gone were the makeshift bandages she had crafted, and also missing were the ugly wounds they concealed. Only small, nearly indiscernible bumps beneath Blueblood’s coat marked the locations of his festering head injury and deadly bullet wound.

“Of course I do! I always do. And you look as though you’ve been to the lowest level of Tartarus and back,” Blueblood replied with a smile, causing Rarity to flush with embarrassment, suddenly conscious of how she must appear. Blueblood’s blond mane and tail were mussed and unbrushed, and his white coat was marred by dirt, but he looked ready for a royal ball compared to her.

“I know what you’ve been through,” Blueblood added. “The malodorous but charming Khufu here told me everything: how you rescued him, then gave him the flower with instructions to bring it to me, and then forged ahead to the griffons’ base to rescue his companions. I confess that when he told me what you had done, I was sure that you would never get out of there. Khufu, however, promised that if we waited by the river you would eventually be along, and here you are. Amazing!”

Rarity found herself at a loss for words. Khufu had indeed plucked a flower and taken it to Blueblood, and of course he had also presented Blueblood with an entirely fabricated version of the day’s events. On the one hoof, his version did credit her with saving Blueblood’s life and a large measure of heroism. On the other hoof, it was a total lie. Before she could decide how to respond, Blueblood continued.

“I know that I was … not at my best, when you left me, and I’m glad that was not the last time we saw each other, because then you would always remember me acting like a pathetic foal. I am ready now to get back to Equestria. Together I believe we can stop all of this insanity before anything worse happens than an inconsequential airship race being ruined.”

“Er, hold that thought for a moment, if you will, and excuse me,” Rarity finally managed. "There is something I have to say." She turned to look at Khufu, who was standing surrounded by his old crewmates and looking, to Rarity’s eye, too pleased with himself.

You,” she said, pushing past Buckaroo to stand squarely in front of Khufu. She tilted her head back so that she could look him directly in his one remaining eye.

“Lady Rarity,” Khufu acknowledged, his mouth turning up in a broad smile that glinted with gold. “I never doubted that you would succeed. You are true hero; it is fact.”

Without saying another word, Rarity reared back on her hind legs so that she could come closer to matching Khufu’s height, and swung her right leg at him as hard as she could. The blow left the top of her leg stinging, and the loose skin of the old camel’s face continued to jiggle for a full second after the impact before finally settling back into place.

“What are you doing?” Blueblood asked, sounding horrified.

“Please, stay out of this!” Rarity admonished, before returning her attention to the camel. “You think that you are just that much cleverer than everypony else, that you can lie and finagle others into doing just exactly what you want. Even after I saved your life, you dared to take advantage of me? I could have been killed on account of your fool’s errand! What then? You would move on with your life, selling your murder machines to the next willing buyer. Would you even lose sleep over it? I am very glad that Blueblood is well, and I suppose I am happy for that you have your crew back, but I shall never believe another word you say, and I will not become another tool of yours ever again.”

“I knew you could save my friends where I could not, and I knew you would not agree to do so if I told you the truth,” Khufu replied calmly.

“You knew nothing!” Rarity shouted. “You are not a soothsayer or a prophet, no matter how good your instincts are, or how smart you think you are. Yes, I helped your friends after you tricked me into thinking I needed secret information to save Blueblood, and yes, you guessed correctly that you would find us here on the river, but by your own admission you never expected Karroc to be planning to go to war, and you never expected your trusted lieutenant to betray you.”

Khufu said nothing.

“Wait, General Karroc is leading these griffons?” Blueblood asked. Rarity ignored him and continued to stare unflinchingly at the camel.

All of this is your fault, do you know that? All of Karroc’s machinations and all his killing machines are your responsibility, and every innocent pony or griffon who suffers because of him is on you. Next time I dearly hope, for the sake of what conscience you have left, that you will have the stomach to risk your own life, because you certainly won’t be fooling me into risking mine again.”

Rarity turned around, chin held high, only to see that everypony else was staring at her open-mouthed.

“You are right about many things, Lady Rarity,” Khufu finally said, a note of meloncholy in his voice. “Zolo blinded me with years of friendship, and Karroc blinded me with money and promise of lasting peace. Yet sometimes my eye still sees clearly, and I have seen always that you are true hero, who can save not only my friends, but maybe even everything and everypony else. It is great burden for you to bear, yes, but you might yet make up for so many of my mistakes.”

“I am not a hero. I am just a fashion designer, and I have no interest in perishing because of an old camel’s delusions!” Rarity shouted, eyes flashing. Pausing to catch her breath, she considered the rest of Khufu’s words. “What mistakes are you talking about, exactly?”

“It is story for later, I think. Now, perhaps we should cease our discourse and find shelter for the night.”

“Khufu saved your friend the duke, what did he do to earn this rebuke?” Zinzi asked.

"Lovers quarrel,” Zips offered, shrugging.

“Well, somepony oughtta explain what all the fuss is about,” Buckaroo said.

“It should think it was obvious,” Blueblood said angrily,”but then I do not have the simple mind of a common outlaw. Your friend Prince Khufu lied to Rarity in order to get her to rescue you.” He quickly moved to stand next to Rarity, facing the deposed camel prince. Just as quickly, Buckaroo, Zinzi, and Zips moved to stand next to their leader. “If you ask me, the whole lot of you mercenary-types are no longer to be trusted.”

“Your choice of words is poor, unless you want to feel quite sore,” Zinzi threatened. Next to her, Zips glared daggers at Blueblood. It was a small mercy, Rarity thought, that the youth did not have a real dagger.

“Stop it, all of you!” Rarity said. “My quarrel with Khufu is my business, and his. Besides, he is right. We need to find shelter and, ah, hunker down for the night, as it were.”

“Be calm, my friends,” Khufu addressed his subordinates. After another tense moment, the admonitions seemed to take effect.

“Well, if we plan to get away without leaving a trail, the first thing to do is cut this raft loose. It is a dead giveaway that you came ashore here,” Blueblood said, still with a hint of an edge to his voice. Rarity had to admit to herself that she took a certain pleasure in the fact that he had been prepared to defend her. Unfortunately, his present idea was out of the question.

“We cannot,” she stated firmly.

“You’re darn right we can’t!” Buckaroo exclaimed. “We need that cannon!”

“We actually need the whole barge,” Rarity said. “I would like explain why, but my reasons are rather complex. For now, perhaps we can simply throw the tarp back on it and cover the entire thing with dirt and vegetation.”

“Cannon?” Blueblood asked, sounding interested. “What kind of cannon?”

“Can we please worry about that later, and cover the barge now?” Rarity asked impatiently.

“I agree with Lady Rarity,” Khufu volunteered, his words commanding the attention of his crewmates. “My friends and I will help conceal barge.”

With Khufu’s endorsement of the project, the work progressed swiftly. Rarity resecured the tarp over the barge, and then directed the others in spreading plants, dirt, fallen branches, rocks, and debris over the entire vessel, so as to create the appearance of an extension of the riverbank. In the end, she was satisfied that the work would fail to draw the attention of any but the most perceptive griffon hunter.

The presence of the barge thus obfuscated, the group adjourned to secluded spot a fair distance into the jungle proper, and an uneasy calm reigned. It was certainly a welcome improvement over the standoff at the water’s edge. Blueblood distributed most of what was left of the food and water supply he had retained, and then all decided it was a wise idea to get some sleep.

“Blueblood,” Rarity said, walking up next to the stallion while the others worked on arranging a hollow space under some tree roots for sleeping. “Before, you said that you were ready to get back to Equestria, so that you could stop what your brother and Karroc are trying to do.”

“Yes. I believe I said that just before you treated Prince Khufu to a hoof to the face. I have not been so surprised by a pony since, well, the last surprising thing you did.”

“Well, now I am going to need you to surprise me, like you did when you took that bullet.”

“How so?”

“I need you to keep a promise."

"And keeping a promise would surprise you? How little do you think of me?" Blueblood asked, sounding hurt.

"This is not going to be easy to keep," Rarity cautioned. "I told Khufu I was not going to let him put me in danger again, but it was the lying I was angry about, moreso than the risk. Tomorrow morning I am going to propose a plan that will sound absolutely insane, and absurdly dangerous, but I promise you it is not insane. It is, in fact, exactly what we must do. Equestria itself depends on it.”

“Are you going to tell me what it is?” Blueblood asked.

“Tomorrow,” Rarity said, yawning. “Not tonight. I don't want you to dwell on it. Right now I need you to promise that tomorrow you will support it - that you will support me - no matter how crazy and desperate I sound.”

“But then you will owe me again,” Blueblood pointed out.

“No,” Rarity replied. “I want you to support me ... as a friend this time. That means no score-keeping.” She looked Blueblood in the eyes, which registered complete surprise at her words. She could barely believe what she was saying herself. If the others had not been here, or if they had been more trustworthy, than she never would have so freely offered Blueblood her friendship. Now, however, she was outnumbered by a group who she could not trust, and who had no particular loyalty to Equestria. She desperately needed a friend and ally, and if that pony had to be Blueblood, then there was nothing to be done about it.

Blueblood appeared to be tongue-tied; his mouth opened and closed a few times, but no words came out. Rarity wondered if he was going over a series of offensive responses, so as to choose the best one. “Me, befriend a commoner?” “I suppose I need an entourage, even out here.” “I knew all along you wanted me.” She was more than prepared to retaliate physically for the second time that day, should circumstances so dictate.

“I promise to support you, insane or not,” he finally said.

Rarity smiled, and it felt like the first genuine one in ages.”I shall hold you to that, because this is going to sound pretty insane.”

She turned and walked over to the nest-like area where the other equines were lying down to sleep. Khufu had found his own spot some distance away. Once she lay down, Rarity was unconscious almost immediately, and that night, her sleep was mercifully dreamless.

She awoke the next morning to the pleasant sensation of resting against something warm and soft, and for the briefest of moments, Rarity imagined that she was curled up in her own plush blankets back home in Ponyville. It was only when she half-opened her eyes and saw that she was staring into something white and hairy that she understood something was amiss.

“Gah!” Rarity’s eyes snapped open fully at the realization that she was resting against Blueblood’s chest, with one of her forelegs draped across him. She instantly withdrew the offending limb and rolled over and away from the unicorn stallion.

“Eeee!” Now she found herself nose to nose with Buckaroo, who lay next to her with his mouth agape and tongue lolling out. As she sprang to her hooves, horrified, she knew that the image of being sandwiched between stallions while looking an utter fright would haunt her for the rest of her days. Surely, though, nothing untoward had happened! Of course not!

Upon standing and rapidly backing away, Rarity saw that the Zinzi and her son were packed in just as tightly, sleeping next to Buckaroo on his other side. She finally remembered how they had all jammed themselves into this hollow space amidst giant tree roots, and how she had been too tired to care about the identity of the ponies adjacent to her. She, however, had certainly not planned to engage in any nocturnal snuggling, and most definitely not with Blueblood! It was a minor miracle that the others were asleep, and that nopony else had seen her in such a compromising position! Rarity suddenly started, glancing around in every direction. Where was Khufu?

“Early riser, I see, like myself,” the camel said. He was standing directly behind her, of course. She saw that he gathered a number of bright purple fruits and arranged them on a tree stump. “Even though you looked so cozy.”

“You will not speak of anything you saw here again,” Rarity ordered, glaring at the one-eyed camel prince. “Ever.”

“I could give my word, but I do not believe you trust me any longer,” Khufu replied.

“Just keep quiet,” she said through pursed lips.

“Others awaken now.”

Doubtless due to her horrified yelps, Rarity saw that the all four of the other equines were now stirring. The group quickly assembled.

“Since you seem to believe you are in charge, perhaps you’ll tell us why we covered the barge?” Zinzi asked.

If the zebra language was really all singsong rhyming, as Zinzi had intimated earlier, Rarity had no idea how they had managed to avoid killing each off out of sheer annoyance. She rubbed her right temple with a hoof and reminded herself not to say anything culturally insensitive before she began to speak.

“Alright, yes, I owe all of you an explanation. I have a plan, you see, and I think it is a rather good plan at that, but it requires us to go further downstream.”

“Downstream? I thought y’all wanted to get back to ponykind, and that’s exactly the wrong way to get to Equestria,” Buckaroo said.

“Hmm, interesting. I suspect your plan is quite bold,” Khufu said. “Perhaps best not to hear on empty stomach. Please, everyone, have some breakfast while lady unicorn explains. Jungle plums are quite succulent this time of year.” He leaned over and took one of the purple fruits in his mouth, and then sat back on his haunches as bright green juice trickled down his chin.

“Yes it is bold,” Rarity agreed. “Downstream is indeed the wrong way to get to Equestria, if we planned to walk back. But we do not have time to walk. You see, I propose we fly.” She paused for dramatic effect and tried to gauge the reactions of her audience. Khufu was inscrutable, while Zinzi, Zips, and Buckaroo appeared confused. Blueblood’s face bore an expression of total disbelief. She hoped that he remembered his promise. “If we continue back downstream, we will eventually reach the crash site of the airship Alicorn. I believe that airship can take us home.”

“But why did you not leave before, if your airship is in condition to soar?” Zinzi asked.

“Well, it is not quite airworthy just yet. Blueblood, er, Duke Polaris, whatever, why don’t you explain?”

“M-me?” Blueblood stammered. “Oh. Well, I suppose the ship is mostly in one piece. The balloon is shredded, and the hull has a few large holes in it. The deck is demolished. But I suppose it still mostly looks like an airship.” He shrugged. “I suppose that if we had time to work on the ship and were able to repair the balloon, and we found a supply of lifting gas, and I got the engine running smoothly, then she could fly again.” The stallion stared at Rarity cockeyed as he spoke, as one would scrutinize an outlandish piece of modern art that one was pretending to appreciate and understand. He obviously had no idea how she planned to accomplish her proposal, but she had to give him credit for gamely playing along.

“Exactly!” she said. “The balloon can be repaired and the hull patched. The only real obstacle is obtaining the lifting gas to get the ship airborne, and I know where we can find all that we need.”

“You mean back at the base?” Buckaroo asked incredulously. “You want to steal it from the griffons? Now that is crazy talk. It wouldn’t be like sneakin’ through the aqueduct, you're talkin' about thievin' right out from under their beaks.”

“In fact I do mean to steal from the griffons,” Rarity said. “You said that they only recently received a large shipment of gas, and that is our target. The Alicorn is not particularly waterproof, I understand, but I believe she can survive a single trip up the river as a boat. Inside the griffon base I saw several airship hulls floating on water without a problem, and all of them were copies of your designs, Blueblood. If these slapdash copies float, then a ship made by to your exacting specifications surely should. We shall sail in, get the gas, and lift off.”

“Sounds suicidal,” Zips observed.

“My son is right, we are not prepared to fight,” Zinzi added. “The griffons have firesticks and claws that rend. They will tear our balloon to pieces before we can ascend!”

“That’s if they somehow didn’t notice us sailin’ all nonchalant-like up the river, past their checkpoints, and into the base. It ain’t possible!”

“I am certain that she has thought about all of that,” said Blueblood, glancing at Rarity with a pained expression that spoke volumes about what he really thought of her idea. “Now, if you will kindly hear her out.”

“Yes, I have considered your concerns, thank you very much,” Rarity said. “I know it will not be easy, but as I see it we have no other choice. You three,” she indicated Zinzi, Zips, and Buckaroo, “know what is at stake if we cannot at least warn Equestria of what is coming.” She blinked, fighting back the first hint of tears as she thought about Karroc’s pending attack.

“What is it?” asked Blueblood.

“When we were escaping the base, I managed to overhear Karroc’s plans. He is planning a terrible attack for the day after tomorrow. He is … he's going to destroy Gallopoli! We cannot simply stand by while he perpetrates this crime, not while there is even the faintest hope that we could save those ponies!”

All the mirth had drained from Khufu’s face as he looked stonily up at Rarity from his seated position. “How?” he asked.

“My brother is going to aid him in using the Heavenstone to call down another storm,” Blueblood guessed, his tone grim.

“He is,” Rarity said. “Karroc will take his airship, with the Heavenstone and I am certain most of his soldiers as well, and fly to Gallopoli. I believe that the stone is more than just a magical gem. It connects with ponies. I think it has tried to do so with me every time I have gotten close to it, and I believe that Windlass has made a connection with the stone that can span the continent. Even though she is probably off with Fancypants, she will use her talent with weather to empower the stone and bring forth a storm that will level the town.”

“Dear Celestia …” Blueblood said softly.

“You see, we have to fly out of here. If we try another way, we will have no hope of reaching Gallopoli in time to help those ponies. If we time our arrival at the griffons’ base for soon after Karroc has left, we should be able to make our way past the remaining garrison, take the lifting gas, and flee. Then, it will simply be a matter of reaching Gallopoli first. The Alicorn is a fast airship, so I’ve heard.”

“But why attack Gallopoli?” Blueblood asked. “Those are just ordinary ponies. There is not even a detachment of the Royal Guard to protect them.”

“As if you don’t know why,” Buckaroo snorted. “Seems it’s your no-good brother behind the whole thing. He’s tryin’ to use these griffons to start a war so he can step in and take over when Celestia and Luna don’t want to fight, and Karroc’s all-too happy to oblige. The more heinous the attack, the more likely it is to rile up Equestria into a fightin’ spirit.”

“I don’t understand. I just cannot imagine my brother being behind something like this. It is unbelievable!”

“Believe it,” said Zips.

“If we repair the Alicorn we will at least have a chance of alerting the ponies of Gallopoli in time for them to flee, even if we cannot stop Karroc,” Rarity said. “There will only be a few griffons left behind, and perhaps we can even elude their detection if are careful enough. Please, there is no other way. I know you are not all ponies, and it may be that you are not particularly fond of Equestria, but we all have hearts, do we not?”

A long pause followed Rarity's speech before somepony finally spoke up.

“Hmm, you know, if we got the ARC weapon installed on that airship of yours, we might have a good shot at keepin’ the griffons away while we gas up and hightail it outta there,” Buckaroo mused.

Rarity seized on the momentum of at least one pony’s tenuous support to continue to press her case. “Yes, the arch thing! Do that, if it means you will join me! I do not even care what it is. I will be responsible for repairing all the damage to the airship’s balloon. Blueblood, you believe you can get your ship ready to fly if we patch it up, don’t you?” She batted her eyelashes, consciously overlooking the fact that the overall effect was probably more ghastly than endearing in her present condition.

“Y-yes, ok,” Blueblood said, not at all convincingly. “The propeller is too large to use in this shallow river, and one strike against the rocks would destroy it. If we can get her watertight and floating, though, then I suppose the maneuvering fins could work as paddles, but I cannot be certain they could handle the stress of the paddling motion in water. The ship is designed to encounter no more resistance than air provides.” Finally, he caught the look Rarity was sending his way. “That is to say, I am certain it will work.”

“Your wild scheme is all but certain to end badly, but even if we succeed we cannot save Gallopoli,” Zinzi said. “I cannot agree to what you plan to do. It is all our doom if we go with you.”

“We might not be be able to save the town, but we could at least give those poor ponies a chance to evacuate!” Rarity replied. “Then we will go to the Princesses, and they will be able to have the pony conspirators arrested. Without them, Karroc will be unable to use the Heavenstone, and there will be no war.”

Khufu coughed loudly, causing the others to turn in his direction.

"Will you join me?" Rarity asked.

“When first I met Zolo, zebra nations Zanzenbra and Zavanna were on verge of war," Khufu began, causing Rarity to wonder if he had been paying attention to her at all, or if he had decided this was story time for some reason. "It was fight over water - who owns Zambezebri river - but it might as well have been over whether zebras were light on dark or dark on light; conflict became more important than reason for hating each other. Already fighting had started. Zolo was firesmith in Zavanna, designing cannons and firesticks. I convinced him to make more money by selling to both sides. With each nation equipped with his weapons and able to inflict terrible carnage on other, war never came, and we grew wealthy.”

“We pulled the same trick back in guanaco country after the rest of us joined up,” Buckaroo noted.

“I though Zolo understood why I am in business,” Khufu continued, one eye downcast. “He said he created these terrible machines to demonstrate futility of war. Fighting would be too horrible and costly to contemplate. This was my dream, ever since I flee Camelon in shame. Now I know he was after only money.” The camel looked up. “I will join you, my fair lady unicorn. I must. You were right. Ponies who suffer because of Karroc are my responsibility."

“Thank you, as long as your word is good,” Rarity said. “I choose to believe it is, this time.”

“I’m in if he is,” said Zips. “Mom?”

“It seems you are all in solidarity,” Zinzi stated. “I will go with you, then, Rarity.”

“Wahaha!” Rarity exclaimed triumphantly. “Let us not tarry then. Back to the barge and away we go! We have only two days to ready the Alicorn.”

The group quickly devoured the rest of Khufu’s jungle plums and then set off. Rarity fell into step beside Blueblood.

“Thank you,” she said. “That must have been difficult, but you kept your promise.”

“A day ago, I would have scoffed and pointed out why your plan is impossible. Two days ago, I would have laughed at your face. Today, I find myself almost excited,” Blueblood said. “The whole world has gone insane, it seems, and by comparison with my brother and the rest of these maniacs, your scheme seems positively mundane. Anyway, you are you right. We cannot do nothing while Gallopoli is blown off the map.”

“Keeping promises, and a promising new attitude to boot,” Rarity said. “Are you quite sure that that flower did not affect your mind as well as your body?”

“Maybe it did. When that camel found me, to which I confess he never would have been able if you had not given him my enchanted compass, I was wandering through the jungle completely out of my mind with fever. Khufu said that I was covered in mud, and blood, and leeches; where I acquired those I do not know. After he jammed that orchid down my throat and I eventually came to my senses, I was able to remember my last lucid thoughts before the fever set in.”

“And those were?”

“You told me before you left that I would have an entire day to come up with reasons why my life was worth saving. I didn’t get a whole day, but I had enough time. With my own brother out to kill me and my dream of restoring respect to the name Blueblood wrecked along with the regatta, I was ready to give up. Then I thought of you and your friends. You are not descended from royalty, and you are certainly not alicorn Princesses, yet you were destined to represent the spirits of the Elements of Harmony. You are special. What if, I wondered, I could be special too, even apart from my name and my lineage? What if I did not need to tie my own destiny to the name Blueblood? I mean, even were I not a prince, I am a pretty amazing stallion.”

“And so modest,” Rarity noted.

“I never claimed to be modest,” Blueblood continued. “I, however, did come to the conclusion that maybe a pony named Polaris could still add some value to the world, even if the age when he would be a true prince among ponies is gone forever. As long as I have a drafting table and a workshop, I thought, maybe I can contribute, even if I never merit my own stained glass window in Canterlot Tower. That's all I remember."

“I’m proud of you,” Rarity said. “Hearing you talk like that, I no longer feel so bad about calling you a friend earlier. I might not even come to regret it. My stars, what is this place doing to us?” She smiled.

“Strange things,” Blueblood replied. “Speaking of which, I’ve been meaning to ask, are those bite marks on your flank?”

“Oh, well yes. I suppose the piranhasprites may have gotten in a nibble or two before I escaped them.”

“Ah, right. Not camel bites then. I had my suspicions about you and that other prince, all alone out in the jungle.”

Rarity did not hesitate a second before giving Blueblood a shove that sent him tumbling to the dirt. She trotted ahead, leaving the stallion to get up and dust himself off. That way, he wouldn’t see the little smile playing across her features. Behind her, she could hear Blueblood chuckling.

Back at the river, there were no signs of any griffons in the sky overhead, and the unconcerned calls of the jungle creatures indicated that it was safe to venture out into the open. Rarity quickly ascertained that the hidden barge had survived the night undiscovered and unmolested.

“Huh. I wonder if they gave up lookin’,” Buckaroo mused.

“Perhaps your fire caused more damage to the base than we realized,” Rarity suggested. “Or perhaps they simply are focused on readying themselves and their airship for war. After all, Karroc may rightly believe that we will have nowhere to escape once he destroys Gallopoli and begins his campaign of terror against the farming communities in southern Equestria.”

“Whatever the case is, I do not fancy meeting any griffons today. We should go,” Blueblood said.

Rarity was inclined to agree. With the magic of two unicorns and the physical assistance of the others, the barge was soon uncovered and ready to be set adrift. After rolling back the canvas tarp, she was pleased to confirm that everything was as it had been, right down to the last tin of Osprey’s Finest canned minnows. The others then joined her on the barge.

“Here she is,” Buckaroo said, tapping a hoof against the exposed surface of the metal part he had uncovered the prior evening. “Just so we’re clear, as soon as we come upon your airship, y’all are gonna help me set up this big ol’ cannon, right? I mean, y’all wanna be ready if and when the griffons find us, don’t you?”

“What is it with you stallions and your firesticks and cannons?” Rarity demanded. “Honestly, you’re worse than Blueblood. It’s sad.”

“Don’t you compare me to that sissybritches duke, now,” Buckaroo warned.

“Indeed, such a comparison would be most unfavorable to a common ruffian like yourself,” Blueblood said with disdain, prompting Buckaroo to take a step toward the unicorn, who held his ground before the big earth pony.

Rarity rolled her eyes as the two devolved into more insults, and she set about untying the knot Buckaroo had used to keep the barge from floating away. After a short burst of magic, they were once again back on the river.

“It seems you have already caused a stir,” Zinzi said, appearing next to Rarity. “I foresee trouble may occur.”

“Whatever do you mean?” Rarity asked, confused.

“You must see you have caught Buck’s attention, and as for the other, I need not even mention. I advise you to end their conflict now, before they have an ugly row.”

“Haha! That is quite funny!” Rarity replied with a laugh. She certainly wasn’t likely to be attracting any romantic interest any time soon. She was a disaster on four hooves! Then again, Buckaroo had shot a few sidelong glances her way, and there had been that wink. Whatever relationship she now had with Blueblood was certainly … complicated. At any rate, it was still impossible for Rarity to believe that anypony would fight over her. On a good day, perhaps, but not in her current disheveled and disgusting state.

“This rivalry is not a joke,” Zinzi warned, “you should heed the words I spoke. If our cooperation is to hold fast, their antagonism cannot last. One of them you should choose, otherwise we will all lose.”

“Oh come now, those two are just being … oh dear.” Rarity turned as a spray of water hit her. Blueblood was in the river, clinging onto the side of the barge.

“If you care to mock my accent again, I’m happy to let my hooves do all the talkin’ from now on!” Buckaroo shouted as Blueblood clambered back on board. Rarity saw that Zips and Khufu were sitting back and watching the spectacle. Blueblood growled and charged at Buckaroo, while Zinzi turned to Rarity with a knowing look.

Rarity’s left hoof made a beeline for her forehead.